Wind farms test efforts to cooperate on Oregon’s Steens Mountain

  • Escarpments on the east face of Steens Mountain near the Mann Lake Ranch.

    Emilene Ostlind
  • A simulation of what Echanis' wind turbines will look like on Hoyt Wilson's Mann Lake Ranch.

    Photo courtesy BLM; photo illustration by ONDA

On a hazy autumn day, Fred Otley leans against his flatbed pickup and talks about managing the Otley Brothers Ranch in desolate, windy southeast Oregon. A careful rotation of grazing and fire sustains the open mosaic of juniper and sagebrush on the valley slopes, he explains. He points to the water tank he installed to lure cattle away from the sensitive creek bottom, which is lined by lush willows. "We have 40 years of progressive management for all uses, particularly for biological health," he says. "This ranch will be here for the great-grandkids."

Across the field, some 50 cows flick their ears and swish their tails. Behind them, the shoulders of Steens Mountain, striped with shaggy stands of juniper, hunch into a sky yellowed by smoke from a controlled burn. From here at its north end, the mountain looks like little more than a hill. But beyond, it climbs gently for miles, cresting at a 10,000-foot-high ridge of gray rock and plunging over gnarled cliffs a vertical mile down to the hardpan Alvord Desert to the east. Glacier-carved cirques gnaw at Steens' edges, and the valleys below shelter creeks and ranches like this one, which reaches into the largest of all: Kiger Gorge.

The mountain -- including this ranch and its public-land grazing allotments -- falls inside the 425,550-acre Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, a patchwork of private and Bureau of Land Management holdings set aside by President Bill Clinton a decade ago to protect working ranches as well as one of the most dramatic natural landscapes in Oregon. At the time, many hoped it would end longstanding conflicts between ranchers and environmentalists. The controversy, however, never really settled, and now a new kind of farm is testing efforts to cooperate.

Otley has leased part of his ranch to Columbia Energy Partners for a 104-megawatt wind farm called East Ridge, high on the gorge's rim. "There is a tremendous wind potential up here in a very small footprint if you ignore the viewshed," he says. "We can't manage the land based on subjective ideas." He's not the only one who feels that way: Two other local ranches have contracted with the Vancouver, Wash.-based company to build similar wind farms. Each will have 40 to 60 turbines standing 415 feet tall along high slopes; two of them lie within the protected area's boundaries.

Conservationists as well as some locals dread seeing turbines, flashing lights and power lines on Steens' escarpments. They say that the projects go against the spirit of the Steens Act itself, which states, "Development on public and private lands within the boundaries of the (protected area) which is different from the current character and uses of the lands is inconsistent with the purposes of this Act."

But the act doesn't provide specific protection from the wind projects because of compromises made when it was written, as well as a clear provision protecting ranchers' private-property rights. Meanwhile, critics say that the cooperative management mechanism laid out to help soothe conflicts like this has always been friendlier to locals than to outsiders. As scenic and wildlife values collide with the prospect of unexpected but much-needed economic development, tensions are rising -- not just between ranchers and environmentalists, but among ranchers themselves. "If there is a take-home message from the Steens Act," Wilderness Society consultant Andy Kerr wrote in a 2006 white paper for the Western Governors' Association, it's that "one cannot legislate cooperation."

Some 20 miles southwest of Otley's ranch, on the gentle western slope of Steens Mountain, sprawls the Roaring Springs Ranch, the largest in the protected area. It's where the final details of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Act were hammered out. "The whole mantra was to keep the mountain like it is," says ranch manager Stacy Davies, a key player.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA, a conservation group based in Bend, Ore., had long pushed for Steens Mountain to become a national park, where livestock grazing would be prohibited. In 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt -- who first heard about Steens in a college geology course -- swooped into Harney County with an ultimatum: Find a way to protect the mountain, or accept a national monument. Ranchers didn't need to be reminded of the recent designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which forbade future development, eliminated cross-country motor vehicle travel and -- critics feared -- opened the door to reduce grazing across a huge swath of federal land.

So Davies got together with a hunter, an Audubon Society staffer and a few other stakeholders to draft some legislation, which then kicked around the offices of Oregon's congressional delegation for about a year before finding its way back to Roaring Springs. Here, Davies and Otley sat down at the dining-room table with two of public-lands grazing's greatest enemies: Bill Marlett, then director of ONDA, and The Wilderness Society's Kerr. Over a few cans of Coors, they worked out the details of a law they hoped would satisfy conservationists without harming local ranches.

In October 2000, Clinton signed it. The new law designated three wild and scenic rivers and a trout reserve and forbade development of federal mineral and geothermal resources (except gravel pits) on Steens Mountain and surrounding lands. It also created the first cow-free wilderness area in the United States. Five ranches, including Otley's and Davies', surrendered a total 18,446 acres of high-elevation private land in exchange for over $5 million and 104,236 acres of arid, low-elevation grazing land.

The act set up the 12-member Steens Mountain Advisory Council to advise the BLM. Council seats are reserved for representatives of outfitters, wild horses, hunting and fishing, motorized and non-motorized recreation and the Burns Paiute Tribe. There are also two seats for environmentalists, two for grazing permittees and one for a local landowner.

The act promised a new future for the mountain, one in which conservationists and ranchers would work together toward common goals. Although ranchers resented the federal government's involvement, they could still run cows on most of the mountain. And conservationists were delighted that the area finally had some protection. But once the advisory council began giving input to the BLM on roads, recreation and other plans for the mountain, the collaborative mechanism began to fray at the edges.

"I told Stacy (Davies) in the beginning, I'm going to give this five years before I file another lawsuit, and we'll see where it goes," says Marlett, who feared that the advisory council was weighted toward local economic interests. Environmentalists are outnumbered by motorized recreation and grazing representatives; there is only one seat for a statewide environmental professional, and ONDA staffers, including Marlett, applied five different times to fill it, only to be turned down by the Interior secretary. A Sierra Club staffer held the seat for some years, but now it's occupied by David Bilyeu, a librarian at Central Oregon Community College and an avid hiker. Joan Suther, the BLM's local field manager, is concerned about the balance on the council: "I'm not sure we have captured all the opinions we should," she says.

As Marlett had promised, ONDA waited five years. Then, in 2006, it sued over the BLM's resource management plan, charging that the agency didn't adequately consider wilderness values. Otley and other landowners spent over $100,000 to intervene, worried they'd lose motorized access to their grazing allotments. ONDA lost, but sued the BLM again in 2008, this time over an aggressive program supported by the advisory council that prescribed use of vehicles and chainsaws in the wilderness to control invasive western juniper. A settlement is pending.

The Steens Mountain group, unlike other BLM advisory councils in the state, "hasn't worked real well" for a number of reasons, says Borden Beck, the chairman of the Oregon Sierra Club's High Desert Committee. The Steens Act "never made crystal-clear how private inholdings in the protection area would be handled," he says. And now the council has to "backfill holes in the legislation, controversial stuff they left undone. It's just ripe for lawsuits from either side."

Nowhere have the problems been more apparent than with the wind-farm issue, which has divided the community. Five different companies have approached Davies with offers to lease parts of the Roaring Springs Ranch for up to 400 wind turbines. "We told them we  have  no  interest.  We  don't  want  to upset the natural environment," says Davies, who grew up in eastern Utah during an oil boom. "There is a change to the community when energy comes in."

But other neighbors found the offers more enticing. Hoyt Wilson's Mann Lake Ranch sits below the cliffs on the northeast edge of Steens Mountain, just outside the protected area boundary. "The only thing we have to sell are natural resources," Wilson says. "If we can't use (them), then you pretty much depopulate the area." He leased a ridgeline to Columbia Energy for a 104-megawatt development called Echanis, which is contracted to sell electricity to Southern California Edison.

The project -- the only one permitted so far -- ignited controversy, not just because of its possible impacts on nesting golden eagles, sage grouse and other species, but because of the way in which it was handled. Columbia Energy Partners carefully divided its Steens wind interest into Echanis and three other 104-megawatt projects (one of which is on state land outside the protected area), slipping under the 105-megawatt threshold that requires state review, including the evaluation of impacts on wildlife. So Echanis received what critics describe as a quick and dirty approval from Harney County officials. After environmentalists protested, Columbia Energy promised to submit land-use permits through the state for the remaining developments, something it has yet to do. Echanis is scheduled to begin construction this summer, pending approval of a 29-mile-long transmission line.

That line, which would cross 10 miles of federal land, is now under review by the BLM. The agency has listed it as a renewable-energy priority; a decision is expected later this spring. When it came up for discussion at an advisory council meeting last summer, both Otley and Wilson, who hold seats, were excused due to conflict of interest. Because two other seats were vacant, the council lacked a quorum. Those who were present weighed in, with five, including Davies, opposing the line and associated wind developments. Three other members were neutral or in favor.

Even if the council had tackled the project, there's little it could have done, at least directly; it has no authority over private land in the protected area. The council could urge the BLM not to approve the transmission line, and thus force the company to choose a longer route that wouldn't cross federal land. Or it could try to access the $25 million authorized by the Steens Act to purchase inholdings and development rights. But Congress would have to appropriate the money, plus matching funds would have to be raised, and so far no one appears eager to go that route. Besides, ranchers like Otley could always refuse the buyouts. "To me, jobs and sustainable energy are more important than the viewshed," Otley says.

It seems that the much-vaunted collaborative process has unraveled on Steens Mountain. Today, the stakeholders' interests appear as fractured as ever. "We will continue to fight this," says Bob Salinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society in Portland. He expects the wind farm to be approved, and when that happens, there is, he says, "strong potential for litigation."

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